Categories
Cricket Sport

Character

The Context

At 272-5, with Pant and Pujara (the top-scorers till then) back in the pavilion, R. Ashwin walked out to join Hanuma Vihari at the crease. Chasing the third highest total made in a successful run chase of 4th innings of a test match, with 43 overs to go, 5 wickets to go – Jadeja with a broken thumb being one of them and the rest certified tail-enders, Ashwin and Vihari represented the last men standing from the Indian defense. I say defense because attack was not an option anymore. If they had decided to go for 407, we would have 99 times out of 100 lost the match. This is where test cricket stands out from any other format of cricket and probably the only form of sport where you could neither win nor lose and yet your chest swells with pride at the end of it. And by now you would know, unless you are living under a rock, that these two batsmen played out the rest of the match without losing their wicket. Thus, saving India from a loss and also having a shot at winning the series.

To understand the magnitude of this achievement, take a look at this:

  • 131 is the 5th most overs batted out by India in 4th innings in draws. The last time something like this happened was in 1979. And out of the 4 times it happened in the past, 3 were in India.
  • 131 overs is the most number of overs India have batted in the fourth innings of a Test since 1980.

[Courtesy: Cricbuzz]

So what?!

Let me start by saying this: Even if Hanuma Vihari’s Test career ends with this test match, he will be remembered forever for this knock of 23(161)* with a torn hamstring. This is the ultimate nirvana of a test player of any country. Between Ashwin and him, they batted out an astonishing 259 deliveries which is 3 overs more than an entire T20 match considering both sides having bowled.

Let’s look at what a cricket player has to do to play test match cricket.

School and U-x matches: They start taking cricket coaching from an early age which means they go to a coaching academy either or both before and after their school. They play for their school and academy cricket teams. Then, they make it to U-12, U-13, and U-15 tournaments playing for their respective schools. These are full-day matches – 40 overs a side if you are playing in a state association registered tournament. At a very young age, the players are tuned to playing for long.

Divisional cricket: Then you enter the divisional cricket and the college level cricket matches. Except for the University level matches, the inter-collegiate tournaments are not usually critical in someone’s journey. The divisional cricket is. One has to play well at the first and second division club matches to be taken note of by the Ranji team selectors. Usually, these first division matches are 3-day 2-innings matches in the test format. Players almost turn pro (most are students at this age) at this stage when they know they can make it big. They end up playing two matches a week playing for different clubs just to ensure their skill is in play all the time. Though loyalty is to one main club, the other club has them over on invitation to ensure they are able to play and play well. And the same club has teams across levels. So if the club sees potential in the player, they slowly help them graduate across levels.

Rahul Dravid, for instance, after his retirement in 2012, turned up to play for his club Bangalore United Cricket Club for a KSCA Group I Division II league match against Sri Jayachamarajendra Cricket Club and scored a 72-ball 108 (15×4, 3×6) to help them from getting further relegated. He joined the club as a 13-year old and owes a lot to Mr. Tarapore who asked him to join the club.
Ranji Trophy (also called List A): Once a player has played well in divisional cricket over a repeated consistent basis and has traversed all the politics of club-level cricket, he (not sure if the women play across these levels – I just don’t know enough about that) gets picked by the state cricket association for the probables for Ranji Trophy. There is a probables list announced consisting of 30 players mostly identified from the top performers of the divisional level cricket to play the upcoming season of Ranji. They undergo a camp in the main cricket ground of their state and from there slowly they begin getting into their state cricket teams. If there are 1000 players who have played divisional level cricket, 1 or 2 out of them get to enter the State team each year. So, the maximum dropouts happen at this level. These Ranji Trophy matches are 4-day matches and happen across 2 or 3 months. Most Ranji Trophy players are playing this full-time. They earn a daily allowance of INR 1,000 and a match fees that amounts to upto INR 35,000 per day – so if they play one match they end up making close to INR 1.45L per match. A full season means around 9 matches which translates to roughly INR 13L which is good enough to devote their time fully to the game.

Then you are picked for the Duleep Trophy to represent the zonal cricket team. For example, if you are playing for Karnataka then you represent South Zone. There are zonal teams – North, East, West, South and Central.

Yuvraj Singh played for his North Zone team post returning from his cancer treatment and smashed a double century to be recalled into the Indian cricket team.

After all of this, there is a trophy called the Deodhar Trophy which happens between India A, B, and C, cricket teams. These are teams formed by picking the best players from the previous levels and the current India team players all distributed to usually form evenly strong teams. This trophy assesses the level of the list A players by pitting them against players who have played International level cricket. These are ODI format matches (50-overs a side, day-and-night sometimes).

INDIA Team – A cricket player makes it to the Indian team after making it across all these levels, unless he is a prodigy like Tendulkar!

The T20 leagues effect

The one that has the biggest impact of all the mushrooming T20 leagues – the Indian Premier League (IPL) has become a sort of a catalyst to fast-track players into the Indian cricket team. And this is not necessarily a bad thing. But there is a longer discussion necessary on what the IPL is doing to the test match playing skills of the players of today.

And it is in this context, that Hanuma Vihari and Ravichandran Ashwin’s knocks establish that while the IPL and other shorter formats may be around, the core cricketing skills of a cricket player continue to be intact, atleast in some pockets. Those pockets seem to include players like Ajinkya Rahane, Cheteswar Pujara and few others. We need to continue to nurture and incentivize them. Else these much valued skills will wane into the oblivion and all we will end up watching for a cricket match is bowlers getting belted all around for sixes and fours with fielders performing gymnastics at the boundary ropes. While that is a different set of skills, we are talking about the fundamental skills that test cricket builds.

One of the positives of the IPL is that it helps players like T. Natarajan make the cut. While there are many others who have missed out on the IPL and are waiting on the sidelines despite a good Ranji record. The IPL itself might not have spotted T. Natarajan, if not for the Tamil Nadu Premier League (TNPL). So, the T20 leagues are finally doing what they are meant for – which is to bring talent to the fore and help them express themselves at the International level.

Questions and Answers

If you read through the levels and hoops that a cricket player has to go through then you understand that fundamentally the player has to have a long-term mindset. The intention must be to stay the course by getting through teams and tournaments and levels and not just staying on top of their game but to actually become the best of the games that are put forward by other players also. So, not just is one competing with themselves constantly but is in a very intense competition with other players getting into the fray almost everyday.

What does it mean to compete with oneself as a batsman in this journey of becoming an Indian cricketer? If you pick up the traditional cricket coaching manual, then the elbow of your top hand has to be always straight and the eyes have to be above the ball. The front leg must be as close to the pitch of the delivery and the gap between the bat and the pad must be less than the width of the cricket ball. And there are many more such minute things that make a significant impact on the batsman becoming a “Test” player. The last genuine test player we had was probably Rahul Dravid. Following in his footsteps, the only player in that mould seems to be Cheteshwar Pujara. Else, such players are largely lost today to the insane boundary hitting lust of the T20 leagues.
The T20 leagues ask the following set of questions to a batsman:

  1. Can you hold onto a career average of 30+ with a SR of 120+? When we add your Average and SR, it has to be 150+ with a minimum of 500 T20 runs under your belt.
  2. Can you make the runs when the equation is 30 balls – 60 runs? Do you have the ability to close a match when the last 6 balls require 20+ runs?
  3. How far can you hit a six? There is a contest for that – can you win that?

If you noticed right through their career’s journey, none of them was prepared to answer these questions. It’s their incredible ability to adapt and train to this that they are able to perform so brilliantly.
Test cricket on the other hand asks the following questions:

  1. Can you play out the new ball?
  2. Can you leave the balls that are in the corridor of uncertainty? Do you know where your off-stump is?
  3. Can you build a partnership and play out a session?
  4. Can you block or get out of the way of a barrage of bouncers from an express fast bowler at the top of his game and spell?
  5. Can you put a value on your wicket that makes bowlers of the opposition plan their bowling attack around you?
  6. Can you curb your natural instincts to hit a cover drive of an over-pitched delivery outside off-stump because you have gotten out the last two matches edging these deliveries to first slip?
  7. Can you field for two days under the hot sun in a leather hunt and then come back to play out the last few overs after being terribly exhausted from all the standing and running around?
  8. Can you stay calm out in the middle when the opposition is sledging you and your family left, right and center for over a session (2.5hrs to 3 hrs)?
  9. And yet, after all this, are you able to maintain an average of 50+ per innings across your career?

And there are many more questions like these which test cricket asks of the batsmen. The very questions they have trained for all their lives. Not just the cricket training, the entire process of playing for the country is so draining that it builds the resilience to stand up when the odds are stacked against you. It asks questions which you cannot answer through belligerence or aggression. You can only answer through surviving and resisting. Through doing the right thing. You cannot go for that six off that over-pitched delivery because this is an old ball and a 5th day pitch of which you can never be sure.

Cricket nirvana

And that’s exactly what Hanuma Vihari and R. Ashwin did in that 4th innings. They put their heads down. Showed their temperament. Survived the sledging from around the wicket. And put a value on their wicket. They answered every question the Australians asked by ensuring they stayed on. The next player to walk in was Ravindra Jadeja who had a broken thumb. Rest of them were all tailenders. If one of them had gotten out, then the match was virtually over and the series would only be available to be equaled not won anymore.

This is the exact stage for which all the players were built throughout their careers. This is the moment they play for. The opportunity they desire to win a match for India and if that’s not available then they would like to atleast save the match for the country. It’s the second best option available. And it’s only in this sport that this option is even available. After fighting through so many hurdles and obstacles you are just simply delighted to be playing for this country. Thus, when you are at a point where you think the match cannot be won anymore without a very real risk of losing it, you set out to save it. And it’s known to be one of the toughest pursuits in sport. You are not trying to win, you are trying to avoid losing. It is very easy to end up into the position that you are trying to avoid. Life mostly works that way.

And that’s exactly why this effort is remarkable. It hasn’t happened in over 4 decades in India. In a country that is fueled by the craze of T20 cricket, for cricket fans like me, this test match restored the belief that our country’s system is still producing test cricketers. To me this is the highest Calibre of cricket players.

And to the players themselves, I would imagine that this is the ultimate nirvana for which they have prepared through their entire careers – U-12, U-13, U-15, U-19, Ranji, Duleep, Deodhar, IPL and finally the Test scene. Winning a match happens when the bowlers take the 20 wickets or batsmen score the winning runs. Saving a match happens when your team needs you to dig your heels in and stay on that quickly degrading pitch drawing upon every instruction and input you have received from every coach and mentor all your life. The other team has tried every trick in their armoury to either get you out or upset you or even injure you! This is the ultimate nirvana because you are the last man standing!


Categories
Cricket Sport

Twin Imposters

Image courtesy: Wimbledon’s Facebook page

“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat those two imposters just the same…” are the words inscribed above the entrance to Wimbledon’s Center Court – one of the highest altars of sport, that a sportsperson can play in.

Boys turn into men

We saw the Indian cricket team turning into men at Melbourne towards the end of a very strange 2020. If this was some other year, we would have celebrated this as a miraculous turnaround of the kind that Indian cricket hasn’t seen before. Don’t get me wrong, it still is the best turnaround in a test cricket series after the 2001 India-Australia series. It’s interesting to note how tired we are to heartily appreciate one more miracle this year. The happiness that this victory should give us has not been able to overcome the numbness of grief that has hit us due to the pandemic. And nor is it meant to be that way. This is more to be treated like a small commercial break in the midst of a long tragic movie. Maybe that’s how the world is looking at this series.

After slumping to the lowest ever total in Indian test cricket history, the team bounced back to deliver a comprehensive victory against the Australians on Australian soil. To put this in perspective, over the last 40+ years, India has won only 8 test matches in Australia. In a very crude way, being a slave of averages, let me say that we have been able to earn a victory once every 5 to 6 years. Australia has traditionally been one of the big daddies of cricket in terms of being undefeated on their soil. So, most experts and fans (apart from some staunch Nationalists) predicted that this series was all but gone 4-0 after the 36 allout. And there was this added complication that the top run scorer of the first test and the captain was returning home for the birth of his child and wouldn’t be available for the rest of the series. Plagued with injuries, India were not even going to be able to field their first choice XI for this test match. If there was a bookmaker, the odds would be stacked 10 to 1 or 20 to 1 against India. It was set up to be a contest where India were the proverbial sitting ducks and Australia their usual ruthless selves bowling bouncers at #11 batsmen breaking their bones and pumping their fists in gleeful delight.

The IPL effect

How did India really achieve this turnaround? We aren’t known to be a team with such resilience. Even the staunch Nationalist supporters would say that look we may still lose the series, but we will put up a fight. I am sure what transpired wasn’t a possibility even in their wildest dreams. More than a turnaround it appeared like we were coming off a magnificent victory behind us. The confidence was there to be seen. It’s a rare breed of confidence that has been built into the dna of these players where they mentally dissociate from the results of the previous game. No prizes for guessing where they learn this skill! When you come off a rigorous two month tournament where you keep playing a match every second or third day, you cannot afford to carry the baggage from one match to the other. This baggage carrying business is not easy because it happens on its own. It is a skill to drop the baggage and move into the next match without being affected by the previous result too much. And since it is a skill, it can be learnt too. And like any other skill, the more you practice it the better you get at it. The IPL has trained these players to learn this all important skill of forgetting the previous match altogether and entering the next match afresh. And this has been the key in helping the team approach the Melbourne Boxing Day test match with a completely new mindset.

Virat’s baby: A Blessing in disguise to the Indian cricket team

The captain had to go back home. Many consider it a sad thing. I would too, to the extent that our batting suffers because of his departure. I have been a vociferous critic of his captaincy. I find his captaincy to be lacking in many areas.

  • The prime lacuna being his evident inability to stay calm even in relatively frequently occurring situations of a standard cricket match. For example, a missed direct hit by someone inside the circle off a quick single and you will see Virat react as if someone has dropped their newborn on to the ground just after delivery. I hope he doesn’t do any of that when his baby is given to him! As a captain, I expect him to retain a certain equanimity on the field. I am not expecting him to be Dhoniesque in calmness, but nor do I want to see him react to every micro incident on the field.
  • I don’t understand about his style of captaincy. He stands on the boundary during critical overs. I agree he is among our best fielders on the rope (notwithstanding a worrying recent trend of dropping dollies inside the circle) and we need him there. But my question is this: when you are bowling a debut bowler, would you – as a captain – like to stand near him on mid-on or mid-off and talk him through his first over? Or would you just go and strengthen the boundary line for him? The other thought could be that as he has been picked to play at the international level, he has all the required characteristics to perform and hence we continue with business as usual. I feel he doesn’t talk to the bowlers enough on the field apart from giving them directions. He doesn’t listen to them. Go stand inside the circle and listen to your bowlers – how tough is that?! I believe it’s a core aspect of captaincy. Virat is rarely seen doing it.
  • Virat appears a little lost when the other senior players are absent from the playing XI. For example, without an MSD or a Rohit Sharma or even a Shikhar Dhawan/ Ajinkya Rahane/ R. Ashwin, Virat has always been found wanting when critical decisions were to be made. This can also be perceived as a good thing that Virat listens to a group of trusted advisors on the field. And it is! But when you drop all these players and have a lack of experience on the field, what is the quality of your decisions? In my experience of watching him captain, the answer to that question is that the decisions have been consistently bad. And there is no situational thinking – for example, sending MSD at #7 in the WC 2019 semifinal. What was he thinking?! When you lose 3 wickets in half an hour, don’t you send your best to stop the collapse immediately? I have many such questions. Fundamentally, his quality of decision-making is worse with the next level seniors not in the team.

And hence, it was a blessing in disguise that Virat Kohli was becoming a father and he prioritized that being around for that moment was more important than being on the boundary rope in Melbourne. Also, how soon do you think Anushka can produce another one? There is an Indian tour of England coming up in Aug-Sept of 2021. Just saying! 😉

Ajinkya Rahane: A player hardened by failure and injustice
Ajinkya Rahane, Ajinkya Rahane daughter
Image courtesy: Ajinkya Rahane on Twitter

Rahane became a father on October 7th, 2019. So, he may not be going back anytime soon I am guessing (the first birthday is also over!). And that’s good for us. As a player, Rahane was traveling with the Indian test squad since November 2011. Despite having been prolific at the List A level, he couldn’t find a place in the playing XI till 2013 when Shikhar Dhawan got injured. When Rahane took the field in the Feroze shah Kotla Test in 2013 (before the magnificent legendary cricketer Arun Jaitley’s statue was put up!), he was the first test player from Mumbai to represent India since May 2007 (Romesh Powar was the last one from Mumbai to debut against Bangladesh in Chittagong). It is possible that MSD didn’t quite like him and he wasn’t in the coterie of players that MSD chose.

After going through this long tenure, Ajinkya Rahane knows how to value his position in the team after having to carry drinks for long enough. After initial hiccups, he has become one of our most prolific run-getters on overseas soil. In fact so much that the man he replaced – Shikhar Dhawan – has played only 34 tests for India since then while Rahane has played 67. Does this say something about how Rahane holds on to opportunities that come his way?
In this series, Rahane had to step up to take over from Kohli after the most humiliating innings of batting in India’s cricketing history. This isn’t new to Rahane. From carrying drinks for almost 2 years to becoming the Indian captain, he is a person who has experienced enough circumstances to know that anything can be overcome. Rahane made his changes – brought in Shubman Gill (in the place of the young Shaw), Mohammad Siraj (in the place of injured Shami), Ravindra Jadeja (in place of Virat Kohli), and Rishabh Pant (to replace Wriddhiman Saha). Except for the last replacement, I was happy with the rest of the changes. And to be fair, Pant played a key support innings during Rahane’s century in the first innings.

Rahane – adding calmness, stability, and self belief to taste
Image courtesy: Yahoo cricket

The 15-member test squad we have selected for this tour is based on a number of parameters. If you just tweak the parameters by a wee bit, you can pick an entirely different set of 15 players who will be as good as the ones we already have and they can beat Australia or anybody else with equal conviction. With this overwhelming talent pool available, we had to find the right set of leadership qualities to steer them into the direction of dominating world cricket a la the West Indians of the 70’s and 80’s and the Australians of 90’s and 2000’s. This team is in that league in terms of talent on paper. Comparatively, the other teams on the horizon aren’t as strong either. So, we should be consistently stamping our dominating authority on all the teams across all the formats that we play in. In my opinion, the bottleneck for this kind of domination is usually the leader of the team and the qualities he brings to the table.
Virat Kohli isn’t yet that leader. Am I saying he cannot be that leader? No. I believe he has some distance to cover in terms of understanding players, their cultures and backgrounds, and subsequently including them in his plans to make this team that dominating world beater. For this, you need to have experienced significant failure already. Which is why a Rahane or a Rohit Sharma make for better leaders in their respective styles. These players have seen the lows of cricketing lifecycle and understand how each player feels in the lifecycle of their stint with the Indian team. They are able to relate to each player other than using brute force methods to pep them up. Virat is yet to undergo this. Somehow despite failing to win a single title for RCB for over 10 years, he still hasn’t figured the way to get out of choking at important matches. I feel we need to give Virat a break to figure things out and then come back to see if he can help us dominate. Else, I would prefer a captain with a low profile who can help players blossom and dominate the stage of world cricket which we have the talent to. And this is the right time to do so. Else, we will again descend into mediocrity of the late 1990’s.
Rahane brought in a sense of calm assurance to the players, as Ashwin said during the post-match conference, that things can be done despite small things going wrong here and there. Rahane isn’t that super genius that does things that are deemed unattainable even before he has done them. Virat has attained that position with some unbelievable level of hard work, sincerity and dedication. It could be that other players believe that this level of effort is not possible by them. And hence, Rahane makes it all believable. This belief in oneself brings stability to the team because then each player can now lean on the other one and that’s how interdependence makes for a strong team.

I have been cooking for the past few months and I hope you will indulge me in a cooking metaphor. Let’s say you are making sambar. You have sourced the perfect vegetables and the best sambar powder available. And then while making the sambar you add all the ingredients perfectly but have the flame on at a level higher than it should be. And you intentionally leave out salt because hey to each his own taste and hence let them add salt to suit their own taste (I will go and stand near boundary irrespective of the situation!). Despite having all the necessary ingredients and knowing the perfect process, you could still end up with a sambar that’s probably not upto the mark.
Rahane adds calmness, stability and self-belief to taste to complete this Indian cricket team’s requirement to dominate the world stage in test cricket. I hope we give him a longer rope with captaincy, even if we face a few defeats in the future, and ensure that Virat Kohli has a break to think about captaincy and get back to it with renewed vigor. Best wishes to him as he awaits his much awaited promotion to fatherhood! As an Indian cricket fan, I am most hopeful of seeing an India emerge from this series that earns the belief in themselves to dominate the world.